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the problem with heritage

Heritage can ground us and thereby comfort us through life’s disorientating twists and turns. Piecing together a family history, experiencing ruins which once housed distant ancestors, or encountering artefacts of past ways of life can all be deeply cathartic experiences, anchors which tell us who we are and why we matter. But (and here comes the problem with heritage) the more we look to the past to find out who we are, the greater the risk we run of simplifying ourselves. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen describes what he calls a “serious miniaturisation of human beings” which happens when people understand themselves and each other through neatly defined and unchanging categories. When we start seeing the world through ‘heritage goggles’ we all too often fall into the same trap, shrinking people down, cutting away all the messy and overlapping things which make up our identities. Sadly, this paring away of complexity is something which appears to be becoming increasingly common. Whether you call it culture wars, identity politics or nativism, people all over the world are using heritage to create simplified definitions of who they are and who they are not.

But heritage doesn’t have to be like this. A clear-headed look at the past shows just how complex, changeable, and interlinked cultures are. As the historian and anthropologist James Clifford points out, making culture is an act of “creative recombination”. No part of who we are materialises out of thin air with a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke. Cultures are made from elements of each other, mixed together to form something which changes and develops from day to day. The challenge is to keep this in mind as we manufacture our heritage stories. How do we make heritage which doesn’t shrink people down, which instead celebrates their complexity, changeability and above all their creativity?

This website presents some of my attempts to tackle this challenge as a curator, a researcher, and an audience development consultant. I'm crossing my fingers, that after the grandiose rhetoric I’ve just unfurled, you don’t find it a sore disappointment. I hope that you find something here that resonates with you, and I hope even more that you get in touch to continue the conversation.

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